A/N: Sorry for the wait, but school got in the way and I suffer from a great deal of the dreaded writer's block. I am planning on revamping this story once I'm done to fix some parts and make it consistent. Thanks for reading and please review.

Chapter 7

"Fanel! Fanel! Fanel!" the crowd cried. They gathered like crows and buzzards waiting on a dying elk; their oppressing, eager eyes watching our every move. Armed with a shield and a sword I stepped up into their screaming revelry.

I gazed at the royal balcony where King Ragnar sat with the lovely queen and his vassals and offered my salute. Then I turned to the boasting beast that was my opponent. He cracked his fingers and loosened his neck muscles. "I'll give you a chance to live if you bow down and kiss my feet, dirty peasant. Come prostrate yourself before me and show the world who is the master!"

"Don't fool yourself, barbarian," I began. "It is you who will grovel for mercy when I am done with you." He doubled over in laughter. "What is so funny?"

"That your stupidity is immeasurable, mongrel." When he stopped laughing, he drew his war axe. "Enough talk, let blood be spilled!"

The herald tooted his horn and the crowd lurched forward in excitement. Fanel smiled a toothy grin and charged with the bloodlust of our ancestors. I raised my shield over my head and we collided like two champions in the heat of battle. My shield was almost wrenched from my hands, but I held firm and retaliated. He dodged my stab and a mailed fist smashed into my face. I stumbled back, shook the lingering headache, and raised my shield again to meet his next attack.

"You have the annoyance of a horsefly," he said when I deflected his next attack.

"My grandmother strikes harder than you." He jumped as I swiped at his knees. I rolled away as the axe head fell. I smacked him on the head with my shield and he threw a blow to my stomach. I pounded his back with the pummel of my blade and he'd hit me in the chin with his weapon's pole.

"You fight like a dairy farmer!" Fanel yelled as he swung his axe in a wide arc.

"How appropriate, you fight like a cow!" I yelled as I ducked under his swing and jabbed upward with my sword. He leaned back and my blade sang harmlessly through the air. He flipped me onto my back with a swift move of the axe's pole.

"You lie like my bitch," Fanel raised his axe.

"You shouldn't speak of your mother that way," I hooked my foot around his knee and brought him down.

We jumped back on our feet and eyed the other. I swung my blade for his head. He leaned back as the tip missed by a hair's length from his nose. I crashed into him with my shield; it knocked him off-balance and his weapon flew from his hand. I followed up with a stab.

Fanel grabbed my wrist and twisted it. My sword fell from my hand. "Now we're both out of weapons. Let's finish this as men," he said, releasing his grip.

I dropped my shield and massaged my bruised wrist. "This will be the end of that night, huh," I asked. He nodded and took up a stance.

"Come at me, unless you're too chicken to fight with your fists," he goaded. I neared him and dodged a few punches aimed at my head. He fended my first few punches, but I managed to hit him once on the chin.

Fanel ducked under my next punch, left shot my ribs, and followed with an elbow to the temple. My head ached from the shock and blood flowed freely from a cut on my head, but I couldn't give an inch. We moved closer still. I raised my arms and blocked his punches; I can still feel his mailed fists through the armor. I dropped under the reach of his next strike and gave him a glancing blow to the balls. Then I lifted my knee to meet his dropping chin and he fell on the floor.

"Son of a whore!" he spat. He tried to rise, but I planted a foot on his chest, pinning him to the ground. I punched him in the jaw and he passed out.

Victory was mine. I stood up and raised my arms in triumph to the astonished crowd. The mob that was once crying out the brute's name was silenced; then, slowly, they cheered my name. I reveled in their chanting and remained to watch the clerics take away Fanel's limp body before staggering to the exit.

I saw Hannah and Hunter with their happy faces waiting for me at the exit. I smiled at them and they rushed forward to catch me as I fell.

I awoke in the infirmary room with my muscles and head screaming in pain. My face was numb and I couldn't open my left eye. The pain increased as I tried to move and a groan escaped my lips when I stopped. I took a look around with my one good eye and saw that the room was still filled with warriors from the tournament. The king provided the care for no expense and the warriors took their time recovering and they had other pre-existing ailments checked by the physicians. Despite my feelings against him, I wondered if Fanel was lying in one of the cots in this room.

A nurse who stood over a patient in the cot in front of me came over with a bowl of water and checked the bandages covering my head. "Good morning fighter. Did you have a nice sleep?" she said as she dabbed my face with a wet cloth. The cold water was a relief from the stifling heat in the room.

"How long have I been away?" I asked with a strained voice.

"I'd say about a day." She placed the bowl on the ground and grabbed a mug from the table in the middle of the room. She poured some dubious liquid and came back. "Drink this, it will help you heal." The nurse set the mug to my lips and an odor of death wafted from the goop-like substance. Before I could protest, she forced the vile drink into my throat. She didn't relent until I finished it in one breath. It tasted worse than it smelled; I begged her for some water to relieve myself of the dreadful flavor it left behind, but she smiled and went away.

"Tasty, wasn't it?" a man said beside me. "I thought it was poison when that she-devil forced it on me."

"What sort of drink was that?" I asked him.

"It's some cure to pain concocted by the head doctor," he said. "Despite its smell and taste, it does work." He examined my face and a grin formed on his lips. "You're the boy who defeated the brute. That was a great battle, so I've been told. No one expected you to pull a stunt as you did, but they can't contest it."

"Speaking of the tournament, what has happened in the day I was gone?"

"Well, they've put the fights on recess for three days, but there are rumors that Krados will forfeit because of his heart." He paused to gaze at the nurse moving around the beds. "If that happens you would have to fight the lord and, God help you son, that man is a master of the sword. Talk among the people says that the fearless pirates around our lands avoid him like a demon."

He sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "I envy you, son; that I do. You have great companions who worry about you." We locked gazes. "I'd give all the wealth in my lands for a person who I can depend upon rather than the ones I have now who seek to spoil my estates."

"I am sure you must have a few around you can depend upon," I pursued.

"You're a kind-hearted man, do you have a family back where you're from?" he asked.

"A wife and three boys I have," I responded.

"Do you all remain happy?" The old man's face grew more somber, but he maintained the grin.

"Though poor, we do keep up the pretense of enjoyment," I started, "but why do you ask? Aren't you happy as well?"

"I have wealth and power! Of course I am happy!" he shouted with a laugh. "I control my own estates and they produce me even more wealth and you ask if I am happy!"

Annoyed at being ridiculed, I spoke: "You do not have to rebuke me like that."

"You are right. You were only honest in asking," he charged. "If you want to know the truth, I do not know anymore. I now know that with age you begin to notice some things that hotheaded youngsters don't; and I don't know if I am happy or just delirious."

"What do you mean?"

"You wouldn't want to hear an old man such as me lecture," he looked away.

"It is alright with me," I refuted. "I am worse for wear and cannot leave this bed; arguing with a stranger wouldn't bother me in the least."

"Since you persist, I'll start," the old man spoke with a comforted tone. "It all began..."

Before too long, night stole away the day and the people gave themselves up to sleep. My companion, the old man who lay next to me, succumbed to the medicine the nurses gave him. They tried to give me more of the foul drink, but I resisted their attempts and they left without a second thought. I wanted this moment to be alone with my thoughts despite the pain.

Our talk got me wondering about my family back in Kulum and how they have been faring without me. My eldest son is probably disappearing into the woods with some of the village girls or hiding away from their fathers; the middle one busying himself with his books; and the young one still holding on to his mother like a babe.

I can already imagine the lot of them together in front of the small cottage when I returned. My wife will nag me to no end until she had retold and criticized everything that had happened while I was away. My sons will want me to tell them of my travels to Tihr and the people I've seen, and show them how to hold a sword and fight like their father. This pleasant respite stole me away and sleep suddenly came.

I woke up in the morning with voices hanging over my bed. I opened my eyes and saw Hannah and Hunter talking with my neighbor. "Friend, you must have slept very well to have woken up at this time," the old man said. At this, the two turned around and greeted me as one would to a friend they hasn't seen in a few years. Hannah embraced me in a tight grip and Hunter slapped me in the back.

"We'd thought you'd never wake up," Hunter laughed. The girl grimaced at his comment and left to talk to the nurse who just entered. When she was far enough away, he leaned close. "Too bad you're married, she cried all day wondering if you'd wake."

"Well, I don't want to repeat that night," I told him. "I'm going to have enough trouble with just that."

"It's you're loss," he shrugged as she came back.

"What is he losing?" she flaunted her beautiful smile.

"Nothing you need to be worried about, dear," the old man winked at the two of us.

"What do you mean?" she asked, growing worried. "What happened? Are you dying?"

I couldn't help but start laughing at her frantic worries and the other two joined me. Embarrassed at being the target of our joke, she blushed red and slapped Hunter and me. "Stop making fun of me!"

"It is hard not to," I said, rubbing my swollen cheek. She puffed up her red cheeks and stormed out of the room. We watched her leave and slam the door behind her.

"She is quite the catch, huh?" the old man whistled.

"That she is," I said. "That she is."